An Operatic Stepping Stone: Marschner's 'Hans Heiling'

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There have been times in the history of music when styles progressed from one era to another so quickly that they seem to have skipped a step. Often, though, there was actually a key figure helping to smooth the transition.

Late in music's Classical period, in Germany, the latest operatic fashion was what we now call German Romantic Opera. The genre's major practitioner was Carl Maria von Weber, who wrote a number of dramas still heard on stages today, including Oberon, Euryanthe and Der Freischütz. Oberon, the last of those scores, premiered in 1826 -- one year before the death of Beethoven.

Less than two decades later, in1843, Dresden hosted a "Romantic opera" premiere by another German composer. It was Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, a score that seems worlds apart from anything written by Weber. Opera, it seemed, had undergone a sea change over the span of just 17 years -- in historical terms, barely the blink of an eye.

Yet, during that same span, there was one composer at work whose operas helped to forge a musical link between Weber's traditional world of German Romantic Opera, and the revolutionary developments introduced by Wagner. He was Heinrich Marschner, who lived from 1795 to 1861.

In all, Marschner wrote more than a dozen operas. Only two of them are likely to be found in today's theaters. One is his sensational 1828 drama The Vampire, and the other is the work featured here, the 1833 score Hans Heiling.

Marschner's operas do have roots in the German Romantic style, with its sequences of individual numbers, written in a Classical harmonic language and sometimes separated by segments of spoken dialogue, as in the German singspiel. Yet Marschner's best work goes beyond that, tying musical elements together in lengthy, through-composed passages, while adding hints of Wagnerian chromaticism to the harmonies.

Marschner's Hans Heiling portrays a legendary figure from the spirit world -- the King of the Gnomes, or Earth Spirits. In Bohemia, along the Öhre River, there's a series of tall, oddly-shaped formations called the Heiling Rocks. As the story goes, they're the members of a wedding party -- turned to stone by Hans Heiling, during a fit of vengeful rage.

The opera's libretto is by the German writer Eduard Devrient, who first offered the story to Felix Mendelssohn. He apparently found the tale old-fashioned, and didn't care for the title character. But the story did strike Marschner's fancy. He began setting it to music in 1831 and the opera's premiere, two years later in Berlin, was the highpoint of Marschner's career.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Marschner's Hans Heiling in a production from the Theater an der Wien, in Vienna. Baritone Michael Nagy stars as Heiling, with soprano Katerina Tretyakova as Anna, the woman whose love tempts him into the mortal world. The performance is led by conductor Constantin Trinks.